You can listen to my 8 minute radio segment on Avengers: Age of Ultron on the Salt + Light Radio Hour here.
Before I Begin: A Note About Comic Books Movies & Violence
While I don’t know the comic-book world all that well, I have come to enjoy many of the super-hero movies that have come out over the past 20 years. However, the reality that violence is almost always the solution to the problems in super-hero stories is problematic. And while this might be okay or reasonable to a certain degree, especially because comic book stories often represent the struggle between good and evil, the extent to which comic book stories and films use violence has become more and more problematic for me, especially when I look at the tendency to use violence in so many of our culture’s stories today. The use of violence in films deserves another blog post—or series of blogposts, so I’ll put it aside for now, simply noting that Avengers: Age of Ultron is more violent than the first Avengers film, and for the most part it is the stylized comic book violence that most fans of the genre are familiar with.
Plot in One Sentence–No Spoilers Here!
The plot becomes quite convoluted, so without giving away any plot spoilers, here’s a summing up of the basic storyline: Artificial Intelligence made from human and alien ingenuity and materials, which is originally intended to protect humanity and bring about peace, becomes the super villain Ultron who wants to destroy humanity.
Artistic Achievement vs. Over the Top
Artistically, this film is amazing because it takes on so much and carries most of it off. Director Joss Whedon, who wrote the screenplay with others, is one of my favorite filmmakers because he is brilliant in creating great story, great action, and great character development, all woven together. Considering that the story includes not just the six Avenger characters in the first film (Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, Captain America, Thor, and Hawkeye), but several new major characters, it’s quite amazing that we get a good sense of each character, the story makes sense overall, and there are a couple of really profound moments of character revelation. This film has nail-biting action scenes, strong moments for each of the major characters, and deeper character arc moments—as many of the Avengers must confront their deepest fears and make a choice to be “better than” the evil they are fighting. I also really loved the fact that this is also a pro-life film—a film on the side of life, that the Avengers unequivocally affirm that human life is precious, gracious, and valuable.
As with any comic book movie, but more so in this one, the plot and action sequences are over the top. (And for the most part, deeply enjoyable as well.) In places, though, I found it bloated with too much action and too many plot details that in the end don’t matter that much (but also don’t make that much sense—at least not in first viewing.) In trying to reach for so much, the filmmakers cannot possibly develop it all well (even in 141 minutes). In places the film felt stilted, underdeveloped, or just spent too much time on stuff I didn’t really care about. While some character revelations worked really well, in at least two cases, I found the Avenger characters much less likable. I think Whedon was trying to show us how vulnerable the Avenger super-heroes are, having them struggle with their inner darkness, but in several cases there was no resolution to the struggle.
Without giving away any spoilers, I will also add that a new character takes the lead mid-film in choosing the path that the Avengers will take. Not only did this new character feel problematic to me, the fact that this new character takes the lead undercuts the character development of the original Avengers—both individually and as a group—to the point that both their growth and the storyline felt a bit thwarted, and the ending of the film felt much less satisfying. (As a writer, I’d say a supporting character took over the protagonist’s role, which is a weakness in the plot.)
Also, this is a much bleaker film than the first Avengers film, which I enjoyed tremendously. While Avengers: Age of Ultron is nowhere near the dark tones of something like The Dark Knight, its bleak view of humanity, of the Avengers themselves, and of the future was disappointing—a disappointment that I especially felt in the themes and philosophical dialogues in the film.
Raising the Big Questions
I loved the fact that the script of the film brings in big questions: what is a person? Is humanity evil? Can humanity be saved, and if so, how? And even, who is God? I found the questions about evil and personhood and technology and humanity’s salvation interestingly examined, using dialogue and story questions that are inherent to the story. But I found the religious references a bit disturbing, as they were usually in support of the super-villain.
The film makes lots of references to faith—a quick shot of Pope Francis when Ultron is reviewing the state of humanity, a reference made in very poor taste to robots multiplying as fast as Catholic rabbits (which I winced at). The film also makes many direct biblical references, some to the Old Testament, interpreting the passages to see God as destroyer of humanity. Ultron makes a number of references to the Church: “On this rock I will build my church,” he says as he sets up his headquarters to destroy humanity in an abandoned church building. Probably the most disturbing reference of all was to the revelation of God to Moses at the burning bush (as a character seems to claim to be God). Taken all together, the way these references are used make the Avengers seem rather unfriendly to people of faith.
Everyone will interpret the philosophical or religious “message” of the film for themselves a bit differently, but I think one could make the case that the film is getting across two points:
1) Humanity is deeply flawed, and as long a we make technology our god, we are doomed. While I think this is overly simplistic to interpret the entire film this way, this is certainly supported by the story and dialogue. And it makes this film a great vehicle for beginning a dialogue about the nature of the human person and humanity’s ultimate destiny.
2) Avengers: The Age of Ultron raises and seems to answer the question of whether humanity is doomed—with the answer being that we are doomed, no matter what we do. (The dualism referred to in the film doesn’t actually refer to good and evil equal…but order and chaos, but still gives preference to inevitability of humanity’s doom.) A distorted biblical religion is portrayed as a destructive force on humanity’s path. Father Robert Barron’s commentary saw the philosophy spouted in this film aligning with the thought of Nietzsche, and his points are convincing, especially because of the ending of the film.
Even though in the end the Avengers, with their unwavering commitment to life, are victorious against Ultron, the entire film has resonated with the final conversation with Ultron, which states that humanity is beautiful but doomed anyway.
A Film Deserving Thoughtful “Unpacking”
Avengers: Age of Ultron is a big film worth viewing, not just because it’s a huge commercial success and appealing to people, but also because it addresses big questions. I really appreciate the way Whedon uses excellent storytelling and interesting characters to raise big questions and delve deep into philosophical and religious themes. This is a good film to go to with someone and really pay attention so that afterwards you can engage with these deeper questions. (On the car ride home, we talked nonstop about the film; a few days later, I stayed up past midnight talking about the film with one of my nephews.) For families interested in going, the PG-13 rating feels about right depending on your teen’s maturity, as the best scenario for a teenager to see the film would be with a parent so they can unpack the perspectives offered by the film on the meaning of life and biblical faith.
…on the deeper message of the film in a religious context, check out: Paul Asay’s Patheos review at Watching God, and Kevin Nye’s perspective on Avengers: Age of Ultron as a poignant conversation on fear and how it affects us as a culture and spiritually.